Category Archives: All things winter

New and Improved Chair 6 for 2014-15 Season

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As promised, Crystal Mountain will rebuild Chair 6 this summer. The chair, formerly known as High Campbell, was demolished in an avalanche earlier this year. I happened to see it firsthand since I was on the avalanche team that set off the slide. It was an historic wet slab avalanche that slid well down onto Queens Run, the green circle groomer below the slide path. The avalanche occurred at 4:40pm on March 10th after the ski area was closed. If you’ve been to Crystal in the last month, then you’ve seen the destruction not just on The Throne, but in Bear Pits, Employee Housing and Powder Bowl. (During the same time that these explosive-released avalanches occurred at Crystal, natural avalanches of similar size were happening around us in Crystal Lakes Basin as well as on Governor’s Ridge, both in Mt. Rainier National Park.)

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

The new Chair 6 will be a new double chair made by Skytrac, the only American ski lift manufacturer. Both terminals will be in the same place as the old High Campbell chair. The old concrete footings for the towers will also be used, which will reduce cost and materials. The capacity will be the same as the old one, which means it won’t get tracked any faster.

The chairs themselves will be more than double the weight of the old chairs, which means that the new Chair 6 will operate better in high winds. John Kircher, my husband and Crystal’s GM, expects to run the new chair in higher winds. He says that winds exceeding the chair’s ability to run would be too strong for skiers and riders anyways. In addition, the unload area will be bigger and will ease the double black diamond offload of the old days.

Gazex Exploder

Gazex Exploder

Since we’ve got the helicopters hauling materials to the summit, we might as well make the most of it. Crystal is also installing three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl to help mitigate avalanches. These exploders, ubiquitous in the Alps and relatively new to North America, use propane and oxygen to deliver a 360 degree blast. The mixing shed that houses the tanks will be at the summit of the Queen and the three exploders (which look like bent-over lift towers) will be spread out on the left side of Powder Bowl.

Another improvement slated for the top of the new Chair 6 is–get this–snowmaking! We won’t be installing the snowmaking this summer due to some necessary environmental work, but we hope to get it going for 2015-16. Gone will be the rock-hopping, ski/board removal and side-stepping of yore.

We are hoping to solve a myriad of problems with this new lift. Moments after that ill-fated avalanche ripped off The Throne over a month ago, I was sick to my stomach. We’d destroyed an iconic lift. We’d cost the company tons of money. An entire pod of skiing was done for the season. My husband wasn’t going to be happy with me.

But as it turns out, the insurance is covering the replacement cost and the new lift will be better than the old one. It will operate at higher winds; the off-load will more user-friendly; and it will give us a chance to install Gazex and snowmaking.

So things are looking up.

 

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?

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“What were your immediate thoughts when you realized the avalanche was so big?”

That’s a question I heard a lot yesterday.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

On Monday I was on the avalanche control team that demolished the High Campbell Chairlift (aka Chair 6). We knew there was a potential for a big slide. Other slopes had slid to the ground in the past 24 hours. The skier’s right side of Powder Bowl had produced a full-depth avalanche and left a 10 foot crown. The Employee Housing slide path produced another big one. The snowpack was saturated with over 3 inches of rain. A weak depth hoar layer still lurked at the ground.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

But we didn’t know it was going to go this big.

Sure, we made sure no one was below. We lowered our 25 lb. explosive well after hours. We worried that our results could be big. But I never thought we’d destroy the lift.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

Talking to the old time patrollers who managed these slopes decades ago, nothing of this size has ever slid before. Maybe back in the pre-Crystal, pre-skier-compacted days this kind of thing happened. But not since Crystal has operated at a ski area.

So what did it feel like to let loose such a big slide?

Scary.

Seeing a big avalanche up close is an awesome thing. There’s nothing like it. As soon as the shot went off, my route partners and I ( we were a team of three women that my husband now calls the Three Shivas) knew it was big. We approached the ridge and looked down. The avalanche was just separating from the slope and noisily tearing down the mountain. At first all I heard was a low whoosh. Then a deep rumble. Next I heard the terrible sound of trees snapping. Finally I heard the sound of twisting metal.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

The visibility was poor so we only had the noise to go on. And it was horrifying.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Outside of our boundaries large natural avalanches have been happening. When we decided to use explosives on The Throne, we all knew the consequences. But it was much better to destroy a lift when it was closed than to risk an avalanche when it was opened and occupied. We didn’t have a choice. Upper management knew the risk too, and my husband was all in. We had to do this thing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, watching an avalanche is awesome, in the sense of massive and awe-inspiring. Seeing the aftermath yesterday with our first clear skies in weeks was horrifying.

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

All day yesterday we continued to test the slopes with large explosives. We dropped charges from a helicopter and hung them on trams. But we got virtually no results. Does that mean the slopes are now safe?

It means I slept better last night. The snowpack is adjusting to its load. We aren’t out of the woods yet. If we get a big rain event, this could happen again.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

We are contracting our terrain at Crystal. What is open has been deemed safe. Don’t duck any ropes and respect all closures. Now isn’t the time for backcountry skiing either. Let’s remember who’s calling the shots here, it’s Mother Nature.

Here’s some footage of the Throne avalanche and it’s aftermath. This video is courtesy of patroller Andy Harrington.

Avalanche Control at Crystal Mountain

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Seeing a big avalanche in person can kind of change your perspective. In many ways I wish that I could take skiers and riders along with me when I do avalanche control so they can hear the sound of a roaring slide, listen to trees break and watch the destructive force of a big slide. Because once you’ve seen a slope fail, the entire snowpack come crashing down through trees and scraping the surface clean, you will never want to duck a rope again. Below is a video of the avalanche on Sunday March 9th at Crystal Mountain in the slide path known as Employee Housing.

With all the rain on Saturday and continued warm temperatures on Sunday, the avalanche hazard spiked in the Cascades. At Crystal, the patrol closed avalanche prone slopes and used explosives to set off some big slides. In Bear Pits a large slide wrapped around from Shot 1 and ran along the rope line that runs above Downhill. The crown was about 6 feet deep and took out timber.

Slidepath known as "Employee Housing" at Crystal

Slidepath known as “Employee Housing” at Crystal

I posted a photo on Facebook of another avalanche in the slide path known as “Employee Housing”. One of the comments gave me pause. It said, “Unfortunately, I’ve seen people ducking ropes to get back there when it’s closed.”

This is a problem.

We don’t close slopes for our own good. We close terrain for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we keep avalanche prone slopes closed during high hazard. We close terrain when we are using explosives to start avalanches. Today was one of those days.

Fortunately no one ducked the ropes in either Employee Housing or the two other domains we controlled on Sunday (Bear Pits and Rock Face).

Bear Pits avalanche that wrapped around and took out part of the rope line.

Bear Pits avalanche that wrapped around and took out part of the rope line.

You might think that ducking a rope to ski or ride just on the other side of the ropes is okay. Kind of a gray area. Again, that’s not the case. The Bear Pits results prove that. So did the Employee Housing slide.

The moral of the story is this: avalanche hazard is high right now. Don’t duck ropes. Be careful in the backbountry. Give mother nature the respect she’s due.

Six Foot Crown in Bear Pits

Six Foot Crown in Bear Pits

Tracking the “Why” of Avalanches

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Researchers at Montana State University hope to better understand how heuristics (human factors) contribute to avalanche mitigation. They are looking for participants for this global study.

avalanche_fracture_crystal_mountain

What you hope you never see

Here’s the overview of their project:

MSUThis project aims to collect GPS location information and survey responses from backcountry skiers and riders to better understand what types of terrain decision we make. Our focus is on backcountry skiers and riders of all abilities and experience. You need not be an expert backcountry skier to participate in this research. Every track submitted will go into the draw for some great prizes kindly donated by Black Diamond Equipment. The more tracks you submit the more chances you have at winning a prize!

Find out more about the study here.

Big Avalanche Results and More About Treewell Safety

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Paul Baugher, the Ski Patrol Director at Crystal Mountain, is concerned about treewell safety. Treewells are the airy voids around trees draped heavily with snow. If you fall into one headfirst you might not be able to get out. Check out this video with Crystal’s Paul Baugher and patroller Christina Von Mertens that offers tips about how to avoid getting stuck in one.

Tree Wells & SIS Safety: What To Do If You Go Down from SIS Safety Videos on Vimeo.

The snow is still draped heavily on the trees here in the Cascades, and the forecast is calling for one last storm tonight. Then it looks like things will mellow out. We might even get some warm high pressure later in the week. In the mean time, the dangers still lurk. We set off some big explosives yesterday in Southback, both from the helicopter and on foot. I was on the hand route, and we worked mainly in Avalanche Basin. We got some big results below Appliances Chutes that wrapped around to lower starting zones. The debris ripped out trees in Damn Fine Forest and ran all the way to Elizabeth Lake. In my 25 years at Crystal I’ve never seen these slide paths run this far.

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

 

World Freeride Qualifier at Crystal: A Recap From the Athletes

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Crystal_Mountain_Poster_2014

Crystal held its first World Freeride Qualifier last week, and in spite of the bitter cold conditions the event was a success. This is the road to the WFT we’re talking about here, and these athletes weren’t kidding around.

Day 1 Northway Bowl, photo by Paul Moseley

Day 1 Northway Bowl, photo by Paul Moseley

The first venue of this two-day Four Star Qualifier was Northway Bowl. Right away athletes were hucking big off cliffs, laying down serious lines and raising the bar high. The next day the venue moved to the north side of the King, home of some of Crystal’s gnarliest lines. While not all of these lines were filled in, these men and women proved they could still go big and hit hard.

Home boy Colby Vavolotis of Crystal came in second place. Here’s what he had to say about the event:

My favorite venue was the King.  It was my first time skiing that face, and being a coach at crystal I have been looking at it all season waiting for conditions to permit it to open.  There are a lot of line options on the King which allows riders to be creative. In choosing my line I took a lot of time trying to decide if I was going to go left or right off the top.  After I went down Brain Damage on a whim, I took took a bit of time finding my first feature, but after I found it the rest of my line fell into place.  I took a line that I wanted to ski, thought I could ski well and have fun so I didn’t have any second thoughts.

Day 2 the King, photo by Paul Moseley

Day 2 on the King, photo by Paul Moseley

Meredith Eades of Vancouver BC, who took second in the women’s division, also preferred the King.

I preferred the King to Northway. The King is a zone that I wanted to hit when I had first come to Crystal last year.  It’s a little less accessible than Northway and as such the snow in there was better. It’s also quite a bit bigger which allowed for more line options and creativity which always makes for a great show at the end of the day! I hit the lines I had planned. There was one hairy cliff in qualifier that I was a bit nervous to hit given the hard pack fast run out. That said I was committed to doing it and I’m glad that I did. It worked out well and was definitely gave me the rush that I love about skiing! I did opt out out of one little tree zone at the end of my second day run just because I felt it would affect my fluidity points more than anything. The cold weather definitely made things a little more challenging. Ie. Managing cold feet and hands, I had a couple friends get frost bite on their toes, which I had never actually seen before.

All the athletes preformed well. The organizers did an amazing job with all the behind-the-scenes logistics, and the weather gods provided just enough snow to make it happen. Way to go everyone! Let’s hope we get to host another WFQ next year. For more information about the event click here.

Men's Final Scores

Men’s Final Scores

 

Women's Final Scores

Women’s Final Scores

 

Riding a Chairlift

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Niseko Japan

Single Chairlifts offer lots of time to think

The number one objective of a ski area is to provide uphill transportation. All the other stuff–the schincter-tightening bowls, the alpine-style restaurants, the crowded bathrooms, the fresh corduroy, the terrain parks with the their diligent crews raking and raking, the ski instructors with impossibly perfect hair–all of that is just a bonus. A ski area wouldn’t be a ski area without a way to get you uphill.

I’ve ridden a lot of chairlifts in my life. And yes, they are very efficient at getting me back to the top. But they have another purpose too. Chairlifts are a place to stop, to regroup, to remember why it is I live in the mountains, why I love to slide on snow, and why I could never live in the city.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve lived entire lifetimes seated on a lift. I’ve laughed with friends and cried alone. I’ve been mesmerized by the brilliant sparkle of sun on snow; I’ve witnessed marriage proposals and spectacular crashes. I’ve also noticed work to be done–tower pads that needed raising, sticks of bamboo that needed straightening, pieces of trash that needed to be picked up.

Last week I spoke at my father’s funeral. The very act of getting up in front of family and friends and declaring the importance of such a great man in my life has altered something in me. It has made me reevaluate what is truly important.

Big Sky, MT

Big Sky, MT

For years on my father’s desk he kept a motto written on a yellow sticky note. It read, “If it’s green, golf it. If it’s white, ski it. We’re not here for a long time. We’re here for a good time.”

Life provides us with all too many opportunities to waste our days. Jealousy, anger, having far too thin of skin, taking things personally, these all help us squander our short time here. Distraction from real life is another wasteful act.

We're riding a lift!

We’re riding a lift!

 

But riding a chairlift is an opportunity to engage. Sometimes draw-droppingly picturesque and other times cloaked in clouds, the views always change. No matter what the scenery offers, I always remember to stop. To breathe. To look around. To remember what it important.

Because like a brilliant man once said, we’re not here for a long time. We’re here for a good time.

The Four W’s: When Winter Packs a Punch

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Winter finally arrived last week and so did the four w’s: wild, windy, wet and wacky. Really, it’s the three w’s but we like to throw the wacky in there because you just never know. This is Crystal and things can get pretty crazy sometimes. On Saturday the Crystal telemetry recorded a spike to 111 mph at the top of Rainier Express. That’s a Category 3 hurricane.

By Sunday morning we’d picked up 24 inches of snow in 24 hours according to the human observation at the Green Valley weather station. From 5am to 8am Sunday morning it snowed 10″. That’s more than 3″ an hour. This fluffy “bonus snow” caused quite a bit of chaos in the parking lot as the plowing crews had to re-plow at the exact time that everyone was arriving. It made for a long drive and an even longer time parking.

It also made for some excellent skiing.

Speaking of wind, check out this video taken recently at Bridger Bowl. The winds were in the 70s this day. Just imagine what Rex looked like on Saturday with those spikes in the Category 3 range. Makes me shiver.

Hopefully most of you were able to partake in the Sunday morning goods. It doesn’t get like that very often in the PNW and when it happens on a weekend, the untracked snow goes fast. We opened Northway for the first time this season at 1:30 on Sunday, and those that stuck around got some good skiing there too.

We are implementing a new program at the Northway gates on big days. Skiers and riders with beacons and partners get to come to the front of the line and go through the gates first. Even though we use explosives to mitigate the avalanche hazard, Northway and Southback are still avalanche prone areas. They simply do not see the same skier compaction as our “in area” terrain. Thus, we recommend skiing with a partner and carrying a beacon and shovel. We are also tweeting our openings, and giving our followers an early heads up. So follow us at @crystalmtpatrol and help us spread the message by retweeting.

The forecast is now calling for a return to high pressure. This should give the snowpack a chance to settle out. While doing avalanche control in Southback this morning, we saw evidence of some big natural avalanches in the backcountry. So giving the layers a chance to bond and the snowpack an opportunity to find some equilibrium is a good thing. Let’s just hope this return to spring doesn’t last too long. I’m kind of partial to winter.